How Did our English Bible Translations Come to Us?

Today we open up our English language Bibles, and often forget all that happened to lead up to this point.  There was no ancient version of Zondervan publishers, to which Jesus sent a complete manuscript for publication.  There was no Amazon where Paul could order a completed Bible, and no Barnes and Noble where any other Christian could walk in and buy one.  During the lifetime of Paul, the Bible wasn’t even completed yet.

Skeptics today cast doubt on whether we can have any confidence that the Bibles we have today could possibly have the same content as when the books of the Bible were first written.  A popular complaint of skeptics today is this:  “The Bible has come through so many languages and translations, that we cannot possibly think that it says the same thing today as it did when it was first written!”  They present a view of the transmission of the Biblical text that is like that old parlor game, in which the first person chooses a statement and whispers it very quietly in the next person’s ear.  That person repeats what he thinks he heard, whispering it into the third person’s ear, and so on around a circle of however many people are playing.  The laugh comes when the final message from the final person is announced to all, and it’s nothing like what the original person said!

Well the fact is that this view utterly fails to recognize the nature of how the Biblical text has been transmitted over the centuries.  Our English Bibles, for example, are simply not the final stage of a long line of translations through many languages.  They are translated straight from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, and from the Greek text of the New Testament.

THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Jews had gathered the inspired books of the Old Testament over the centuries.  When we come to the lifetime of Jesus, the collection of Old Testament books had been complete for some length of time.  When copies wore out, or when someone wanted a new copy, Jewish scribes meticulously transcribed the manuscripts, and did so down through the centuries.  To make sure they copied without error, one of their several safeguards was an elaborate system of counting.  They knew how many words were in each book, and in the whole Old Testament.  They even knew how many letters.  Upon making a new copy, they would then calculate the middle word of each book and of each whole manuscript, to make sure it was correct, before sending it out for use.

The books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, and it is from Hebrew manuscripts that we translate into our modern languages today, resulting in our current copies of the Old Testament in our own languages (there are a few short sections of the Old Testament written in Aramaic, an ancient language related to Hebrew, and very close to it).

As for which books were genuinely inspired and divinely intended to be part of the Old Testament scripture, Jesus Himself spoke in such a way as to endorse the specific collection of books that existed in his day as the right collection, and they are the same books we have in the Old Testament today.

We’ll look more closely at the development of…

THE NEW TESTAMENT

There appears to have been no central collection point for the books of the New Testament, as they came forth from the pens of the inspired writers.  Matthew wrote his gospel to a Jewish audience, and surely it first circulated among the Jewish Christians.  Luke addressed his gospel and the book of Acts to a person of nobility named Theophilus, and copies would have been made from the original copy in his hands (though some believe this name, which means “Lover of God” was merely a literary device, and that the book was addressed much more widely).  The book of Colossians was a letter written by Paul to the church in Colossae.  How did these and all the other books all come together?

Well we get a hint of that in the letter to the Colossians.  Paul said to them, “And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans” (Colossians 4:16).  What Paul specifically requests here would be quite a natural development anyway.  Laodicea was a town only about 10 miles from Colossae.  If you had been a Christian in the first century, wanting to learn more but without a New Testament (it didn’t exist yet), and you heard that a neighboring church had received a letter from an apostle of Christ, inspired, the will of God, wouldn’t you want to read it?  Wouldn’t Christians start making copies?  And we see that Paul wanted those others to have it, as per his instruction in this passage.

Toward the end of the first century, there was a man living in Rome, known to us as Clement of Rome.  He took it upon himself at one point to write a letter to the church in Corinth.  Now Rome is more than 600 miles from Corinth, and separated from it by the Ionian and AdriaticSeas, but in his letter we find out that Clement had studied the letter that some years earlier Paul wrote and sent to Corinth (we know it as 1 Corinthians).  In his letter, Clement refers to Paul’s letter (1 Corinthians) –

Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle.  What did he first write to you in the beginning of the Gospel? Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had made divisions.

That is exactly what Paul wrote about to Corinth, in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians (see especially 1:11-13).

So 600 miles away from Corinth, a Christian in Rome had a copy of the letter Paul originally sent to Corinth, and he respected that letter as an inspired letter (“he charged you in the Spirit”), a letter to be followed.  All over the empire, as churches and individuals received letters from the inspired writers, they would naturally share it with others, reporting the inspired source.  Copies would be made, and slowly the collection of New Testament books began to be recognized.  With the passage of time, some debated whether certain books should be included or not, but eventually there was a consensus among brethren as to which books had indeed been inspired and should be part of the New Testament.

During this early period, most New Testament texts were in Greek, though some early translations were being made.  Over the years, it became more and more common to translate the Bible into other languages:  Syriac, Coptic, Latin, etc.  The accusation of skeptics today would go something like this:  The Bible was translated from Greek into Syriac, then from Syriac into Coptic, then from Coptic into Latin, then from Latin perhaps into some early Germanic language, and so on, until truly we would doubt the accuracy of our modern English translations.  Along the way, say the skeptics, parts were added and parts were omitted.  To be sure, there were occasions when scripture was translated from one non-original language into another, sometimes scribes added a phrase here, or removed a word there.  But our good modern translations do not descend through a line of such things.

The sources for our modern translations are the Greek manuscripts themselves.  We have today well over 5000 Greek manuscripts of the Biblical text.  Most of them are manuscripts of sections of the New Testament text.  Some of one book, some of several books together, some only a few pages, some even less than that.  On the other hand, some of them are relatively complete copies of the entire New Testament text.  And there are well over 5000 of them in all.  Some of them were made as late as 1000 AD, but others come from the 3rd or 4th century.  One of them, a fragment of the gospel of John, comes from somewhere around 125 AD, just about 30 years after John wrote his autograph manuscript of the gospel.

When the King James Version of the Bible was produced in 1611, they relied on these Greek manuscripts – although at the time, some of the oldest Greek manuscripts still lay hidden in archaeological dust, not yet discovered.  The King James relied mostly manuscripts that were more recent, closer to 1000 AD.  They had plenty of Greek language manuscripts covering the whole New Testament text;  they just didn’t have the very old manuscripts.  By the time the American Standard Version was produced in 1801, many of the more ancient manuscripts had been discovered;  again, the ASV relied on these Greek manuscripts as the source, not on translations in other languages.

When the translations of the late 20th century were produced (the New American Standard, the New King James, the New International Version, the English Standard Version), all these also relied on the ancient Greek manuscripts, not on translations in other languages.  And by the late 20th century, there were even more of the earliest Greek manuscripts that had been uncovered, and were used in the translation process of our most modern English Bibles (with the exception of the New King James, which made little use of the oldest manuscripts).

So our Bibles today are not the result of endless change across many translations.  They are the result of taking ancient manuscripts in the original language, and producing from them a modern English translation.

There is much more information available about our translations and the transmission of the text over the centuries, and about the men who sacrificed their time and even their lives to translate the scriptures from Greek into English – and it is a fascinating study.  We would be glad to study these things with you, or provide titles of books that would be useful for your private study.

They sacrificed so that we can have the scriptures in our language.  Surely we can sacrifice this world’s pursuits to take the time to read and study and learn from these Divine scriptures!